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I see this a lot in law firm newsletters, articles and alerts: long, dull headlines. So what? you ask. It’s the substance that’s important. The headline is a detail.

Of course the substance of a legal article is important. But without a good, grabby headline, will your audience bother to read your pearls of wisdom? Probably not.

Newsletters are media, and the competition for all kinds of media attention these days is fierce. In our internet/smartphone overloaded work-life, newsletters are just one more drag on a client’s time. Will clients click your newsletter email open, or maybe download a competitor’s podcast and go for a run, instead? The answer may hinge on your headlines.

So here are my top three rules of good headlines:

  1. Six words or less. Oh, I can hear the protests already: Six words aren’t enough to convey the nuance of the subject. That’s quite true, but completely beside the point. Headlines are not meant to convey nuance; their job is to lure readers into the story.
  2. Tell readers why they should care. Here’s a typical headline that lawyers write: Supreme Court Decides Smith Case. Well, that’s nice and all, but it gives no context or clue about why your client needs to be concerned. Compare to: Supreme Court Says Reimbursement Formula Flawed. Which would give your client a reason to read further?
  3. Be clever, cute or provocative, but not too much. I’ll confess I sometimes go overboard on clever or provocative headlines. Particularly in the age of search engine optimization (SEO), you’re often better off sticking to the facts, ma’am, just the facts, so your article will appear higher in the search rankings. Yet your readers are intelligent people who appreciate wit and humor, so use those on occasion, especially for feature (as opposed to news) articles. Here’s a great headline from a recent article (subscription required) by an employment lawyer: Management: No Jerks Allowed. How much more enticing is that headline than something like “Rudeness Among Managers Leads to Legal Liability”?

Writing good headlines is an art, not a science. Don’t get frustrated if your initial attempts aren’t home runs. Keep trying, and you’ll improve.

Jennifer Alvey is a legal editor and writer who has edited thousands of headlines. One that sticks in her mind is this one: Call the Doctor, I Think I Am Gonna Crash: What You Need to Know, But Are Afraid to Ask, About the New Designated Doctor and Required Medical Examinations Rules and Processes. She put that one on an emergency fast, and it got better. Contact Jennifer at jalvey AT wordsolutions DOT biz.

I stumbled across this great phrase, smelling legal, on Wayne Scheiss’ legal writing blog. What a fantastic description of how too many lawyers are taught to write. It’s not hard to see how lawyers get there: we spend three years doing little but reading snippets of archaic, poorly written cases. And too often, legal writing teachers encourage those smelly legal words like “aforesaid,” “bring an action against,” or “in the event that.”

The key to great legal writing is having two vocabularies: your legal reading vocabulary, and your legal writing vocabulary (a concept I picked up from Bryan Garner’s excellent book, Legal Writing in Plain English). Your legal reading vocabulary must include all those smelly legal words, or else you can’t be a competent lawyer. Your legal writing vocabulary, though, should contain the plain English translations of those smelly legal words and phrases, such as:

  • prior to/subsequent to: before/after
  • bring an action against: sue
  • in the event that: if
  • in order to: to

What’s your favorite smelly legal word or phrase? I confess as a young lawyer I had a bit of an addiction to inter alia; it just sounded so gloriously legal and slightly mysterious. Using it properly signaled to everyone I had cracked the code, yanno? Of course, now I just wince when I see that phrase used in place of “among other things.”

Jennifer Alvey trains lawyers how to write sweet-smelling legal memos, briefs, and contracts. She can be reached at jalvey AT wordsolutions DOT biz.